The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history, earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the “ethnically cleansed” areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth century was one of unprecedented horror for many.
Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Or how about Australia’s extermination of the indigenous population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the groundwork for Hitler’s crimes by creating particular habits of thought and political precedents.
What was unique to the twentieth century–and thus the subtitle of Samantha Power’s very impressive “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide–was the invention of the very word “genocide” and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in the construction of international law and associated political and juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal regime.
While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least significantly curb such horror: the US government. “No US President has ever made genocide prevention a priority,” she writes, “and no US President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”
The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely those within and without the US government who have spoken the proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate or acknowledge–and thus take appropriate action–that genocide was taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.
Perhaps the biggest hero in Power’s book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups, to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for their prosecution.